By M. Doretta Cornell
In last week's blog, I wrote of a ceremony of reconciliation with three of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, a group of elder women who work internationally for peace.
That experience reminds me of the 2010 International Conference for a Nuclear Free, Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World. The highlight for me was hearing the Hibakusha – survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – calling for peace among all peoples.
What strikes me most in both cases is the attitude of those who had suffered and continue to suffer because of deliberate acts of destruction toward them, their children, and their cultures.
The Grandmothers solemnly accepted our letters of apology. The Hibakusha – several in their nineties – marched side by side with us through the streets of Manhattan, singing and sharing tiny peace cranes inscribed "No More War. No More Nukes."
There were no recriminations or protestations of repentance. They simply invited us, citizens of the nation that caused their suffering, to become transformed people. Their focus was on involving us in creating a "culture of peace," on building the kind of world in which such devastation is forever impossible.
How does a person become able to do this?
First, I am coming to understand, must come a reversal of our usual American way of responding to violence. (I say "usual" because of what I see and hear around me, in the news and political stances, in movies and books and television.) We respond according to what is done to us: an eye for an eye. However, as Gandhi is said to have declared, this will leave the whole world blind.
It also leaves the choice of who I am and how I behave in the hands of someone else – the murderer, the terrorist, etc.
Those who respond to violence with compassion act from a different stance, from their own sense of who they are, how they want to be in the world, and what sort of person they want to be. The phrase used by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is "acting out of our integrity."
I find this a very deep difference: I want to act out of who I am, out of the principles on which I base my life. From these women, and from the example of the groups I spoke of above, I have learned that I can refuse to become what my opponent might think of me, or to act like my opponent.
This has given me, as a Christian and a Catholic Sister, much to meditate on. If I truly believe in the Gospel of Jesus – and I have given my life to following his teachings – then my reactions as well as my actions must be formed by the principles of the Gospel, not by someone else's actions.
As I see it, that begins in understanding who I am in the eyes of God: a beloved daughter. The more I have experienced the deep love and compassion God has for me, the more I also have seen that that compassion is for each person. It is an initiative by God, not a response to our actions.
As with any great love, this divine love calls out in me a desire to love as deeply and as widely. And so I choose to act out of love and compassion, not out of revenge and hatred.
This is not a completed task; I am a "work in progress," failing and starting over. As one of the Amish men of Nickel Mines replied when asked how he could forgive the gunman who shot the Amish children in 2006, forgiveness is not a one-time accomplishment. We have to choose to begin again each day to be compassionate.
This is no easy task. It means recognizing the depth of the hurt, not glossing it over, and, in the face of that hurt, choosing not to perpetuate that kind of behavior. It demands faith in the power of resurrection, in the continual hope for repentance and reform. This again is rooted for me in my faith. Jesus teaches that love is the greatest power: his resurrection witnesses to its power even over death. My belief in "lesser" resurrections, changes of heart and mind, stems from that act of love.
However, even if a particular opponent shows no signs of repentance, I want to act in ways that are true to my beliefs and my sense of what kind of person I choose to become.
Another benefit: living in anger and with revenge, psychologists and spiritual guides tell us, deepens the power of the opponent over me. As a friend of mine says, such a person "is taking up too much space in my head." By holding on to our anger and living for revenge, we allow the opponent to dominate our thoughts and influence our actions. I do not want to surrender that kind of power over me to someone capable of violence.
And so I continue my struggle to become a woman of compassion, both when it is easy and when it is difficult. Only if I do can I hope for a world that values peace and collaboration over destruction and hate.